The King and I (Opera Australia and John Frost)
QPAC, Lyric Theatre
April 19 – June 1
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” is one of those perennial favourites that is guaranteed to draw an audience. It is a captivating and beautifully told tale, but a tale that is flawed due to its reliance on demeaning cultural stereotypes as comic fodder.
The stylised account of an English school teacher in the court of 1860s Siam, is very much a period piece, however, not one of the 1800s so much as the mid-20th Century era in which it was penned, time during which cartoonish racial stereotypes were acceptable. (Think Mickey Rooney’s offensive, ethnic caricature of Mr Yunioshi in 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.) And it is disappointing to see a production touted as being a re-imagined revival rely on such stereotypical characterisations, particularly in the opening scenes, when, Anna and her son arrive in a strange and mystical Bangkok of pickpockets, snake charmers and Pidgin English speakers.
That said, Rodgers and Hammerstein shows are about the music. And “The King and I” offers some of duo’smost enduring tunes, including ‘Whistle a Happy Tune’, ‘Getting to Know You’, and the wonderful ‘Shall We Dance’, so familiar to audiences courtesy of its classic 1956 movie. These offer some soaring operatic moments and vocally the cast meets the score’s demands. Shu-Cheen Yu impresses as Lady Thiang, thanks to a powerful voice and commanding stage presence. Similarly, Jenny Liu gives a notable performance as Tuptim, the young girl Burmese gift to the King, separated from her lover. And, as anticipated, the children’s cast are charming in their cuteness, particularly as they feature in turn, in colourful costumes, during Act One’s ‘Getting to Know You’ number of introduction to Anna as their teacher.
As the spoiled and sexist, titular king, Teddy Tahu Rhodes sulks and struts like the Oscar-winning Yul Brynner, but he is no Brynner. Lisa McCune’s performance, however, is very much Deborah Kerr-ish in look and sound. As the genteel, caring but equally strong-willed and ‘very difficult’ Mrs Anna, she is affectionate and full of humour as she battles with the fierce and volatile king, making this very much her show.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” is a treasured classic of musical theatre. And in its 2014 revival, this iconic and beautiful musical is, as ever, a magical feast for the senses. The production is dazzling; the stage sparkles with lavish sets of gold and the extravagant costumes are a feast for the eyes. And sitting close to the front of the stall allows audiences to be awashed in the aromas of incense, further adding to the all-encompassing aesthetic experience.
There are some truly memorable moments in this lavish production, most obviously Act Two’s spirited “Shall We Dance”, where a beautifully ball-gowned Anna is literally swept off her feet and swung around the room in the arms of the King. Indeed, the second act is more satisfying, as the narrative progresses more swiftly. Along with “Shall We Dance”, the ballet of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” (the play within a play, written by Tuptim for the entertainment of the King and official guests from Britain) is a particular highlight.
Opera Australia and John Frost’s production of “The King and I” is one of impressive beauty and charm, however, for all their enchanting sentimentality, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are overtly political works, and this shouldn’t be ignored for the sake of operative opulence.